Today’s Solutions: June 15, 2024

The newly popular idea of Global Footprintlets us measure the ecological impact of how we live

Marco Visscher | June 2004 issue
“It is the best way to calculate our performance on sustainability,” declares Carwyn Jones, Minister for Environment, Planning and Countryside for Wales, explaining why his government was the first in the world to opt for the ‘global footprint’ method of measuring the effects of environmental damage.
The model (also known as ‘ecological footprint’) offers everyone a clear picture of how large a portion of the earth is needed to supply energy and goods to meet the consumption habits of a particular region or country. In Wales, for instance, people have discovered that their global footprint is bigger than their country as a whole. “If the whole world had the same lifestyle as I and my fellow countrymen have,” Jones explained to me while walking the corridors of Cardiff City Hall, “we would need three planets. However, as far as I know, we only have one.”
As the Welsh government explains on a new website, this is why the country needs to reduce its claim on the available space on earth. To do this, it plans to make public transportation more attractive, introduce better waste disposal methods and stimulate energy conservation. The biggest challenge will be agriculture. Wales imports many foods even though its farmers could grow the the same products, which means less shipping of goods and thus a smaller global footprint.
Wales’s adoption of the global footprint – after collaborating with the World Wildlife Fund and Cardiff University – represents a definite breakthrough for the idea, which was first introduced in Our Ecological Footprint, a 1996 book by community planning researchers William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel. Since publication of the book, this new measure of sustainability has been adopted by public officials, companies and individuals all over the world to reduce their impact on nature and climate change.
Officials in London, under the guidance of Mayor Ken Livingstone, have been inspired by the global footprint idea to tax cars entering the inner city and create the world’s first green suburb, where building materials and energy use do not add to the greenhouse effect. But not until Wales, has a national government actually used the global footprint model.
The idea is gaining even more impact with the launch of the Global Footprint Network at the end of March. This organization aims to increase use of the global footprint and refine its applications. The network is advised and supported by an international coalition, including Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, Karl-Henrik Robèrt, founder of the The Natural Step, and Michael Meacher, former British Minister for the Environment.
The network’s first success came in Australia, where the Environment Protection Agency of Victoria – based in Melbourne – implemented a large-scale sustainability campaign around the footprint focused on schools, business and public organizations.
Despite these successes, the global footprint still has a ways to go in being widely accepted. Andrea Collins, who researched the model for Cardiff University and the Centre for Business Relationships, Accountability, Sustainability, and Society (Brass), notes that business and public leaders often have not been involved in calculating the information and therefore tend to disregard the results.
After all, how can you figure how much productive land is available worldwide? Why has the calculation method reserved ten percent for ‘other animals’ and not – let’s say – fifteen or three percent?
Mathis Wackernagel, co-founder of the concept and leader of the Global Footprint Network, admits that the model is flawed. But he notes, “A national income [like GDP or GNP] is a flawed model as well. For example, it lumps all expenditures together – that for pollution as well as that for cleaning up the environment – which is strange, to put it mildly. Nevertheless, the method is still used everywhere. In spite of the shortcomings of the available data, the global footprint is a valuable way to demonstrate that we no longer live within what is possible with regard to natural resources.”
According to Wackernagel, the footprint is not the ultimate way of enforcing sustainability, but it clearly demonstrates that there are proven problems in sustaining the current way of life. In Wackernagel’s opinion, “the wonderful thing about the footprint is that it builds consensus around shared concerns. It is an invitation to everyone to participate, it reveals how your efforts compare to others around you and it provides support in making decisions.”
For more information: Global Footprint Network, 1050 Warfield Ave, Oakland, CA 94610-1612,
United States, telephone +1 510 839 8879,,
Go to for a quick way
to calculate you own global footprint.

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